ORIGINALLY WRITTEN MATT INSLEY & DON RATZLAFF
The KCAC tournament championship game between Tabor College and Saint Mary College was everything a championship game is supposed to be. And more.
It took two overtimes for the winner to be decided, but the Bluejays were the ones dancing on the court after a 94-92 win in Leavenworth Monday night.
At the end of regulation, the Jays may have thought their chances were dim when Saint Mary guard Joel Ockey hit a 26-foot 3-pointer to put the Spires up by two with 1:07 remaining.
But Tabor’s Ernest Nortey answered with a bucket off a Dustin Frost assist. Regulation time ended after Tabor made the defensive stop.
The Bluejays went on a 6-0 run to start the first overtime. But Saint Mary fought back, tying the game at 82 with 16 seconds left.
Micah Ratzlaff was called on to take the last shot for the Jays, but was unable to find an opening. Frost missed a hurried jumper from the top of the key as time ran out.
With 55 seconds left in the second overtime, Tabor senior Kevin Koehn hit a free throw to tie the game at 92. The Bluejays managed a defensive stop on the next possesion, and called a timeout with 10 seconds to play.
Once again the ball went to Micah Ratzlaff, who dished the ball to Tyson Ratzlaff on the left wing. The freshman passed to a streaking Koehn, who was fouled and then calmly sank both free throws.
Saint Mary’s last-second shot failed and Tabor celebrated its first conference tournament championship since 1997.
Micah Ratzlaff finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Nortey added 16 points and Koehn 13, including 7-of-9 shooting from the free-throw line.
Tabor, now 22-9, will continue its season in the NAIA Division II national tournament in Point Lookout, Mo., March 8. Pairings and times will be announced sometime this week.
Semifinals vs. Bethany
When his team needed him the most, Tabor senior Eric Driggers was there. The 6-4 forward scored all 16 of his points in the second half to lift the Bluejays to an 83-76 win over the Bethany Swedes Saturday afternoon in Hillsboro.
The win advanced Tabor into Monday’s KCAC tournament finals against St. Mary College, but also earned the Bluejays a berth in the national tournament.
Drigger’s contributions on offense, which included four 3-pointers, became all the more critical after Micah Ratzlaff, the Jays’ floor leader and top scorer, fouled out with 8:19 to play with 22 points.
“It was just huge for us,” coach Don Brubacher said of Driggers’ play. “Our team movement gave Eric great shots, but it was Eric’s responsibility to finish the play-and he did it without fail. It’s something he’ll remember his whole life.”
The game was marked by huge shifts in momentum. Bethany scored the first four points, but Tabor responded with an 18-1 run to lead by 13 points with with 13:09 left in the half. Ratzlaff fueled the run with 12 points.
The Swedes hit six 3-pointers over the next 10 and a half minutes to go ahead by three points, 39-36. A 9-2 Tabor spurt in the final two and a half minutes put the Bluejays ahead 45-41 at the break.
Tabor carried that momentum into the second half, building a 15-point lead, 60-45, with 14:55 to go on a bucket along the baseline by Ratzlaff. But the 6-6 junior picked up his fourth foul with 13 minutes to go and took a seat on the bench.
When Bethany began another surge, Ratzlaff returned to the game but lasted only a short time before the officials assessed his fifth foul.
During that stretch, Tabor’s only points came on two 3-pointers from Driggers. The Jays also were mired in a funk at the free-throw line, missing six straight, including two on the front end of one-and-ones.
Combined with a couple of more 3-pointers from the Swedes, the margin was back to 66-62 with 7:43 to play and the outcome of the game was seriously in doubt.
But Tabor regained its focus at the charity stripe, hitting 12 of 14 free throws the rest of the way, including 10 of 12 in the last minute, to nail down the win.
Brubacher was pleased with the way his team responded after Ratzlaff fouled out.
“When there’s eight and half minutes left, you can’t quit playing the game,” he said. “We struggled for a bit when he went off, but down the stretch we executed our game pretty well. I was proud of our guys for that.”
The win secured Tabor’s first trip to the national tournament since 1997 and the first with Brubacher since 1994. Don Zimmeran was head coach from 1995-96 to 1998-99.
“It means quite a lot to me primarily because I thought we had a group of athletes that could compete at that level,” Brubacher said.
That five of his top 11 players were newcomers didn’t make the achievement an easy one.
“We’ve had to learn to know them better and they’ve had to learn our systems,” he said. “So we’ve struggled to bring our game to the point where I thought it could be.”
First round vs. KWU
Bouncing back from losing the regular-season conference title Saturday night, Tabor men came out strong against Kansas Wesleyan and went on to beat the Coyotes, 74-49, in the opening round of the KCAC tournament Wednesday in Hillsboro.
The Jays’ defense gave up three 3-pointers, but otherwise stifled the Coyotes through the first 12 minutes of the game.
Meanwhile, fueled by eight points in the paint from Ernest Nortey in the first five minutes, the Bluejays rolled to a 30-12 advantage with 8:38 to play in the half.
“I was really pleased with the first 10 minutes of the basketball game,” coach Don Brubacher said. “We played our best in that stretch and demonstrated what we’re capable of on each end of the floor.”
Tabor’s intensity cooled in the final minutes of the first half. Wesleyan took advantage with an 11-3 run of its own, cutting the lead to 33-23 at intermission.
Over that stretch, the Bluejays struggled against the Coyotes’ zone defense.
“The zone hurt us tonight.” Brubacher said. “Normally, we smile when people play zone defenses against us.”
Kevin Koehn and Micah Ratzlaff stepped up in the early minutes of the second half to get Tabor on track.
After a bucket by Wesleyan’s Matt Meyer to open the half, Koehn hit a 3-pointer and 2-pointer. Ratzlaff followed with 10 straight points, including two 3-pointers, to put Tabor ahead, 46-25, with 12:28 to play.
The two teams played about even the rest of the way until a late surge gave Tabor its largest lead of the game, 74-27, with 35 seconds to go.
Ratzlaff finished with 15 points to tie Meyer for game-high honors. Nortey added 12 and Koehn 11.
As a team, Tabor shot nearly 63 percent from the field, including a blistering 75 percent from inside the arc (21-of-28). Tabor’s defense, meanwhile, contributed to KWU’s meager 34.6 shooting.